Sleep-away camps can’t snip the data umbilical cord between parents and children | Opinion

My son’s 12-day odyssey into the wilderness was aimed at catapulting him away from our grasp and our watchful eyes

Summer camp should be a time to disconnect from technology. These days, however, parents have new ways to keep up with their kids. (Eric Thomas photo illustration/Kansas Reflector)

Summer camp should be a time to disconnect from technology. These days, however, parents have new ways to keep up with their kids. (Eric Thomas photo illustration/Kansas Reflector)

By Eric Thomas

This week, I have been opening the same app — over and over — scrolling through photos.

Zooming in. Zooming out. Squinting at the faces. Paging through gallery after gallery. Reading the sideways smirks for hidden meanings. Examining the half-expressions in the photos like tea leaves.

“Is he having fun?”

“Is he hanging out with a variety of different boys?”

“Why is he wearing that shirt again?”

As the parent of a 14-year-old boy at summer sleep-away camp, I have been searching for photos of him on the app his YMCA camp provides. My friend called these photos, with only a little sarcasm, “signs of life photos.”

And yet, I didn’t want it to be this way. His 12-day sojourn into the wilderness aimed to catapult him away from our grasp and our watchful eyes.

During the school year, parents track their children with apps like Life360, well into their adult lives. These days, mom and dad know when Sophia and Simon have returned home from soccer practice before the front door opens. They can know when Sophia’s cellphone is low on battery. They can know when Simon’s carpool driver speeded 100 mph down a county road.

Summer — and particularly summer camp — offer a refuge from this. We recite the mantra: “They are away at camp. It will be good for us all.”

But most summer camps didn’t get the message.

When parents at my son’s camp checked in, they got a typed itinerary. Then we had the same itinerary emailed to us. When the boys left for a canoe trip, we got an email. As parents, we can’t resist. We scour these emails for hints of how things are going.

As my wife and I walked this morning, I wondered about the word choice of an email we had received the previous day: “What did it mean that there have been some ‘bumps’ at the start of camp?”

But the Bunk1 app feeds our most primal parental urges to know exactly what our kid is doing. Armed with facial recognition, the app scans hundreds of photos uploaded by the camp each day to find our son’s face in a crowd. There he sits, unwittingly being broadcast from the Michigan shoreline to our phones, comfortably tethered to our Wi-Fi connection.

And there I sit, the dad who was so excited for him to have this independence, the dad who was ready for some wide-open space in my day. Prodded by those thoughts, I rolled my eyes at the camp’s offer to download the app: “Let him do his thing. We will do our thing.”

By the next day, I broke. I had plugged in my confirmation code. It didn’t work, so I tried another one. When it worked, I created an account, clicked on the photo gallery and refreshed and refreshed. The facial recognition had found eight photos of him.

It did a miraculous job. I wouldn’t have recognized him, a hazy foreground blur, in at least one of them. And I was hooked.

“Why is the photographer at the girls camp uploading so many more photos?” I asked my daughter. “And the photos are so much better. You can see all of their faces.”

That was my complaint. Me, the same dad who begrudged the fact that the app existed in the first place, just a few days before.

The hypocrisy gets richer. I am the director of a summer camp for high school journalism students, some of them the same age as my son. The camp I organize, the Jayhawk Media Workshop, similarly allows students to stay overnight, away from the watchful gaze of parents and guardians.

When we upload photos to social media for the camp, I know we are feeding that same parental appetite for surveillance.

“Do you think she is learning anything?”

“They have been sitting next to each other in every photo. I wonder if she has a summer camp crush?”

“He never wears his glasses at home. I wonder why he is at camp.”

I understand the delicate balance that camp directors are trying to maintain. Last year, we were frustrated that a different summer camp had omitted telling us about accusations of bullying in our son’s cabin. Today, I thanked his camp for calling us about an incident in which tension boiled over into racism. I want information.

Yet, here I am asking for camps to keep our kids cloistered in the wilderness in the next sentence.

That’s a particular balance to prescribe to camp counselors who are most often young adults who are trying to figure life out for themselves.

Let’s imagine that the roles were reversed. Imagine a social media app for our kids to watch us as parents while we are away. Sophia could see photos of dad at his business conference in Boston, accepting a national sales award. Simon could scroll through photos of his mom doing a team-building exercise with her colleagues at a corporate retreat in Albuquerque.

The demand for that app from kids? Zilch.

How do I know that? Because how often are our kids begging for a Facebook account so that they can hover over images of mom and dad during their travels? Never.

Summer camps — especially summer sleep-away camps — proudly announce their no-phone policies for campers. They confidently hold the line that youngsters need the time to unplug. (I totally agree.)

My encouragement to camps is this: Be just as confident in giving parents a week away from hourly image uploads and app notifications about our kids. Let us have the photos once we pick them up.

Sure, we might begrudge you for a day or two. But you will be creating young campers who are more independent.

And you will be grounding our helicopter parent urges — at least for a few days — during the summer.

Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association and teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the University of Kansas. He wrote this piece for the Kansas Reflector, a sibling site of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where it first appeared.

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Capital-Star Guest Contributor

The Pennsylvania Capital-Star welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation on how politics and public policy affects the day-to-day lives of people across the commonwealth.